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Mandela's Sports Legacy Revisited - Dougie Oakes

Mandela's Sports Legacy Revisited - Dougie Oakes

Guest : Dougie Oakes

The long short history of post-apartheid South African rugby
Dougie Oakes
The compromises and conciliations of South African rugby mirror the unfinished
transition from apartheid racism in the broader society.
It is now history that all the warnings issued by the South African Council on Sport
(SACOS), which dominated anti-apartheid sports protests inside South Africa, were
ignored by the incoming ANC government after 1994. In every part of the country we
are paying a heavy price for the ANC government’s mistaken belief that leaving
apartheid sports structures relatively intact would earn them both brownie points and
votes from the white electorate. In May 1990, the National Sports Congress (NSC) was
launched as the sports wing of the ANC and soon the SACOS mantra: “No normal sport
in an abnormal society” was turned on its head.
About a year or two ago, I delivered a paper at a sports conference at Stellenbosch
University. I called it “Mande|a’s Sports Legacy Revisited.” I spoke about a fallacy that
had taken root just before and after the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament.
It was a fallacy, I said, that ceded control of a game, in which only white players could
aspire to play for their country, to the very people who devised the segregation and the
rigid apartheid rules that governed who could play where. This has led to the betrayal
of thousands of black rugby players who had fought so hard for non-racialism, and
against a regime that was prepared to torture and kill its opponents.
I described South Africa’s sports policy as having been built on something that wasn’t
real—the “Rainbow Nation”—and on mumbo-jumbo, called “Madiba Magic.” Nelson
Mandela did many good things for South Africa, his attempts to guide South Africans
towards reconciliation being an example. But he also made some terrible errors of
judgement. In this respect, one of his worst decisions was to agree, with his inner circle
of advisors, to pick up the tab for South Africa’s apartheid debt.
Another mistake was to give white South Africans a free pass into international sport
without asking them to make a single sacrifice. Black South Africans are still paying the
price for this largesse today.
Let’s be quite clear about this: apartheid, and its predecessor, segregation, were
wonderful policies for white people. They were even better for those who played a
sport, such as rugby. Both formed part of the ultimate quota system—at different times.
Playing under the emblem of the Springbok, life could not have been better for white
South African sportsmen and women, and spectators.
Mandela erred badly by supporting appeals by white administrators to allow the
Springbok emblem to be retained, and by allowing the white South African Rugby Board
to maintain control of the game in South Africa. These are key reasons why
transformation has not taken place in South Africa. A small number of black players
being pushed through a narrow pipeline of so-called “traditional” rugby schools can
never be described as transformation. It is assimilation.
Today, black players, whether they like it or not, are part of a national body that
glorifies a history of the Springbok that is tied to apartheid, to players who supported
apartheid, and to officials who for a long time arrogantly told their counterparts in
other countries who could and who could not be chosen in their touring sides to South
To be part of this structure is to be at one with people who even today admire the 1960s
Springbok Centre, Mannetjies Roux, for kicking an anti-apartheid protester during a
pitch invasion of a match in the Springbok tour of the UK. It is to be at one with the
fawning comments of Supersport commentators relating to the wonderful rivalry
between white Springboks and the All Blacks over many decades. I feel sick when these
same commentators say things such as “since our return to international sport.”
Have the sports media in this country even mentioned in passing the 50th anniversary
of the founding of the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) that fought so hard to get New
Zealand authorities to cut ties with the “Springbok”?
Has Peter Hain’s fight against apartheid sport ever been mentioned?
Has white sports’ despicable history ever been highlighted? The truth is that even the
conservative old farts who ran the game in countries such as England, Ireland, Wales,
Scotland, France, Australia and New Zealand, who supported the Springboks through
thick and thin, were eventually forced to join the rest of the world in isolating South
The ANC’s record in fighting apartheid sport has been laughable.
Soon after then-President FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC, the PAC and the South
African Communist Party, on February 2, 1990, the ANC began lifting the sports ban on
various codes, provided they participated in matches that were “non-racial.” This,
rightly, infuriated members of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, and those who
supported them. A Labour Party MP, Bob Hughes, told Aziz Pahad, then-ANC’s deputy
secretary of international affairs that “ambiguities and inconsistencies over the sports
boycott had helped to confuse the public.” He begged the ANC to be patient. If any
problems arose later, it would be very difficult to revert to the situation as it stood.
But the ANC wouldn’t listen.
Pahad denied the public was being confused. Instead, he asked the British Anti-
Apartheid Movement to consider lifting the boycott as far as it affected “non-racial”
bodies. An angry Hughes wrote back to him, caustically stating it was a pity the ANC had
not consulted the anti-apartheid movement about its change in policy.
But the writing had long been on the wall. In 1990, Oliver Tambo, then-ANC President,
returned to South Africa after three decades in exile, to attend an ANC consultative
conference, and called on the organization to re-evaluate its sanctions policies.
It was a signal to open the gates. The rush into international sport quickly became a
tidal wave. South Africa sent a team to the Barcelona Olympics without even a flag.
There was a cricket tour to the West Indies. And India toured South Africa. In 1992, South
Africa sent a cricket team to the World Cup in Australia.
The ANC’s sports policy was badly constructed and executed. At best it was naive. This
naivety had all the hallmarks of the involvement of Mandela and his dream of
reconciliation. White South African sportsmen and women were not asked to make a
single sacrifice, nor did they offer to make any. All they wanted was to play
international sport, and they got their wish.
The way rugby is administered is beyond abnormal. Somehow or other, the South
African Rugby Union has managed to get the country to accept a “qualified” merit
system for rugby—very much like the “qualified” franchise for black voters that the old
Progressive Party used to punt.
The sad thing is that the ANC government has been complicit in selling this system to
the public.
In August 1992, white South African rugby spectators were given their first chance to
show they were prepared to buy into the new order. New Zealand and Australia arrived
in the country for matches against the national side. It was at the time of the Boipatong
massacre in which 44 people had died in decidedly suspicious circumstances. Many
suspected the South African security services of having been involved in the killings. The
ANC’s request to the South African Rugby Football Union was simple: hold a minute’s
silence for the dead of Boipatong before the game against the All Blacks, don’t sing the
old national anthem and don’t wave old South African flags at the match.
These requests were ignored.

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